Anonymous: Head of a Woman

9 September 2011
Head of a Woman • Anonymous, China
Anonymous, Head of a Woman (1880s)

This small, virtually photographic painting is a study for a larger ancestral portrait. The image, set in the middle of a very large sheet of folded-up paper, came from a workshop in which the master artist rendered the difficult facial features and studio assistants filled in the body.

This work is anonymous — the concept of the artist as portraitist wasn’t significant in 19th-century China. The portrait is a gift from Carleton professor emeritus Ian Barbour and his wife, Deane, and has a special connection to Asia through Ian’s family. His grandfather, a civil engineer surveying for the Chinese railroad, purchased this in Beijing in 1890. At that time, Westerners generally were interested only in porcelain if they were looking at Chinese art and artifacts; something like this would have been considered more of a curiosity than a work of fine art.